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Covid-19 threatens to take the bloom off Imbalu's rose this year

By Richard Wetaya

Added 9th July 2020 08:52 PM

This year, needless to say, is an Imbalu year but from the look of things, Imbalu ceremonies rituals which are slated to begin next month, will, for the most part, be scientific, due to the physical distancing restrictions brought forth by COVID-19.

Covid-19 threatens to take the bloom off Imbalu's rose this year

An Imbalu candidate being taken for the Imbalu cut. (Photo by Richard Wetaya)

This year, needless to say, is an Imbalu year but from the look of things, Imbalu ceremonies rituals which are slated to begin next month, will, for the most part, be scientific, due to the physical distancing restrictions brought forth by COVID-19.

CULTURE

Thursday, December 18, 1998, was my day of Imbalu reckoning. 

Bodies encrusted with black swamp mire, thick millet yeast paste and chime from a sacrificial goat, I and my three colleagues were led away in single file by a posse of rowdy and militant kinsmen brandishing big sticks [tsisonyi], pangas, broken tree branches to our grandfather's courtyard in Khatwelatwela village in Nyondo, Mbale district, for the cut.

It was a few minutes past 4 in the evening and the atmosphere in the village was frantically charged as the wild kinsmen went haywire like red bulls that had seen a red flag. I and my colleagues were probably just a year past puberty but it was almost as if we were being taken to beard lions in their dens.

Imbalu candidates accompanied by their kinsmen at Mutoto cultural ground in Mbale in 2018. Unlike previous Imbalu ceremonies, this year's proposed scientific Imbalu ceremonies will likely be devoid of crowds. (Photo by Richard Wetaya)


By then, the kinsmen were cheek and jowl, pushing and shoving each other, as they competed to sound keep firm, show fortitude and betray no fear exhortations to each one of us.

One particular uncle kept shouting in my ears; constantly reminding me of other brave clansmen who had successfully undergone the ritual, in preceding years.

According to tradition, kinswomen can't be anywhere near Imbalu initiates as they are being taken for the cut.

The Kadodi drummers who had been hired by clan elders to accompany us in the earlier elaborate Imbalu ritual known as "khusamba Imbalu" or "Imbalu dancing" and most of the kinswomen and other villagers had by now been relegated to the back.

With their reverberating melodic drumming, however, the Kadodi folks were taking the shine away from us as they attracted all the incredible booty shaking, hip twisting and gyrating village females in droves like moths to a flame. 

Crowds look on as candidates are smeared with Mud from a swamp near Mutoto.The muddy swamp is strongly associated with the ancestral diety of Imbalu or the Kumusambwa Kwe'Imbalu.This ritual may likely not take place this year. (Photo by Richard Wetaya)


At that moment, however, your thoughts as an Imbalu initiate are solely focused on successfully paying the proverbial Imbalu debt, not seeking out potential girlfriends.  

It was a spectacle and at length, everything panned out well on our side as we all stood stock still as the knives cleaved through our genitalia's fore and inner skins, in front of a mammoth crowd, to boot.

This year, needless to say, is an Imbalu year but from the look of things, Imbalu ceremonies rituals which are slated to begin next month, will, for the most part, be scientific, due to the physical distancing restrictions brought forth by COVID-19.

The new normal means few kinsmen and kinswomen will be accompanying Imbalu initiates on their "Khusamba Imbalu" ritual. The other anticlimax will be the few Kadodi processions.

Imbalu candidates from South Bugisu perform the Tsinyimba dance at the Imbalu opening in 2018. (Photo by Richard Wetaya)


Now, this is not good because essentially in breaking that mould, the bloom will be taken off Imbalu's rose.

Imbalu ceremonies are a drawing card, they are for many Bamasaaba, momentous festive events which unite them, give them identity and create their gender ideology. 

In many ways, Bugisu without its renowned elaborate-religious like Imbalu festivities where Imbalu initiates dress colourfully [with Kamarubisi-headgear made from skins of black and white Colobus Monkeys, long tails decorated with cowrie shells hanging on their backs and swirling, bitsenze-metal thigh bells, etc] and perform dances like Tsinyimba is like New Orleans in the United States without its flamboyant Mardi Gras parades or Brazil without its debauchery encouraging Carnival. It is like Kampala without its crowd-pulling pork joints and its closed bars.

AN Imbalu candidate stands stock-still as he is taken through the first day of the Imbalu millet flour smearing rituals. During this ritual, kinsmen and women keep close. Because of COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions, kinsmen and women will this year not keep this close.(Photo by Richard Wetaya)


The fact is many cultural customs around the world pale in comparison to Imbalu.

To that end, therefore, I feel like this year's Imbalu rituals will be one of the most boring experiences, not only for the initiates but also for their kinsmen, kinswomen, and visitors to Masaaba land to boot.

Watching Imbalu dance rituals with few people accompanying the initiates on account of physical distancing will be as boring as watching paint dry.

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